Scientific & Nonscientific Approaches To Knowledge
Scientific & Nonscientific Approaches To Knowledge
By Jamie Hale

What are the differences between scientific and nonscientific approaches to knowledge? Basically, science is a specific way of analyzing information with the goal of testing claims. What sets science apart from other modes of knowledge acquisition is the use of what is commonly known as the scientific method. Giving a precise definition of the scientific method is difficult as there is little consensus in the scientific community as to what that definition is. Although the scientific community has been slow to agree upon a clear definition, the scientific method is rooted in observation, experimentation, and knowledge acquisition through a process of objective reasoning and logic. One notable description of the scientific method comes from A. Aragon (Girth Control 2007, p. 9); he defines the scientific method as: “systematic process for acquiring new knowledge that uses the basic principle of deductive (and to a lesser extent inductive) reasoning. It’s considered the most rigorous way to elucidate cause and effect, as well as discover and analyze less direct relationships between agents and their associated phenomena.” If you asked a panel of scientists to define the scientific method you would receive a large array of answers, but I think most would agree on the basic concepts. The following is an excerpt from Why People Believe Weird Things (Shermer 1997, p. 19). “Through the scientific method, we may form the following generalizations:

Hypothesis: A testable statement accounting for a set of observations.

Theory: A well-supported and well-tested hypothesis or set of hypotheses.

Fact: A conclusion confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to offer provisional agreement.”

When using the scientific method one of the primary goals is objectivity. Proper use of the scientific method leads us to rationalism (basing conclusion on intellect, logic and evidence). Relying on science also helps us avoid dogmatism (adherence to doctrine over rational and enlightened inquiry, or basing conclusion on authority rather than evidence). The nonscientific approach to knowledge involves informal kinds of thinking. This approach can be thought of as an everyday unsystematic uncritical way of thinking. Below I will discuss the major differences between the two.

Comparing Scientific & Nonscientific Approaches to Knowledge

Scientific Nonscientific
General Approach Empirical Intuitive
Observation Controlled Uncontrolled
Reporting Unbiased Biased
Concepts Clear definitions Ambiguous definitions
Instruments Accurate/precise Inaccurate/imprecise
Measurement Reliable/repeatable Non-reliable
Hypotheses Testable Unstestable
Attitude Critical Uncritical

*Based on Table 1.1 pg. 6 Research Methods in Psychology (Shaughnessy & Zechmeister 1990)

General approach

The scientific approach to knowledge is empirical. The empirical approach emphasizes direct observation and experimentation as a way of answering questions. Intuition can play a role in idea formation, but eventually the scientist is guided by what direct observation and experimentation reveal to be true. Their findings are often counterintuitive.

Many everyday judgments are based on intuition. This usually means that “gut feeling” or “what feels right.” The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines intuition as a mode of understanding or knowing characterized as direct and immediate and occurring without conscious thought or judgment. Intuition can be a valuable cognitive process, but becoming too reliant on intuition can be a problem. What’s right is often counterintuitive. Our intuition often fails to recognize what is actually true because our perceptions may be distorted by cognitive biases or because we neglect to weigh evidence appropriately. We tend to perceive a relationship between events when none exists. We are also likely to notice events that are consistent with our beliefs and ignore ones that violate them. We remember the hits and forget the misses.

Below is an example of the difference between the “gut feeling” approach and the one preferred by scientists. The excerpt is from The Demon-Haunted World (Sagan 1996).

‘I am frequently asked, “Do you believe there’s extraterrestrial intelligence?”
I give the standard arguments-there are a lot of places out there, the molecules of life are everywhere, I use the word billions, and so on. Then I say it would be astonishing to me if there weren’t extraterrestrial intelligence, but of course there is as yet no compelling evidence for it. Often I am asked next, “What do you really think?” I say, “I just told you what I really think.” “Yes, but what’s your gut feeling?” But I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me in trouble. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.’


When observing phenomena a scientist likes to exert a specific level of control. When utilizing control, scientists investigate the effects of various factors one by one. A key goal for the scientist is to gain a clearer picture of those factors that actually produce a phenomenon. It has been suggested that tight control is the key feature of science. Non-scientific approaches to knowledge are often made unsystematically and with little care. The non-scientific approach does not attempt to control many factors that could affect the events they are observing (don’t hold conditions constant). This lack of control makes it difficult to determine cause-and-effect relationships (too many confounds, unintended independent variable).

The factors that the researcher manipulates in order to determine their effect on behavior are called the independent variables. In it’s simplest form the independent variable has two levels. These two levels (or conditions) include the experimental condition; the condition in which the treatment is present and the control condition; the condition in which the treatment is absent.

The measures that are used to assess the effect of the independent variables are called dependent variables (Shaughnessy & Zechmeister 1990). Proper control techniques must be used if changes in the dependent variable are to be interpreted as a result of the effects of the independent variable. Scientists generally divide control technique into three types: manipulation, holding conditions constant, and balancing. We have already discussed manipulation when we looked at the two levels of the independent variable. Holding conditions constant other than the independent variables is a key factor associated with control. This helps eliminate the possibility of confounds influencing the measured outcome.

Balancing is used to control factors that cannot be manipulated or held constant (e.g. subjects characteristics). The most common method of balancing is to assign subjects randomly to the different groups being tested. An example of a random assignment would be putting names on a slip of paper and drawing them from a hat. This does not mean there will be no differences in the subject’s characteristics, but the differences will probably be minor, and generally have no effect on the results.


How can two people witness the same event but see different things? This often occurs due to personal biases and subjective impressions. These characteristics are common traits among non-scientists. Their reports often go beyond what has just been observed and involve speculation. In the book Research Methods in Psychology (Shaughnessy & Zechmeister 1990) an excellent example is given demonstrating the difference between scientific and non-scientific reporting. An illustration is provided showing two people running along the street with one person running in front of the other. The scientist would report it in the way it was just described. The non-scientist may take it a step further and report one person is chasing the other or they are racing. This is not objective information but speculation.

Scientific reporting attempts to be objective and unbiased. One way to lessen the chance of biased reporting is checking to see if other independent observers report the same findings. Even when using this checkpoint the possibility of bias is still present. Following strict guidelines to prevent bias reporting decreases the chances of it occurring. Although I would say 100% unbiased reports rarely, if ever, occur.


It is not unusual for people in everyday conversation to discuss concepts they really don’t understand. Many subjects are discussed on a routine basis even though neither party knows exactly what the subject means. They may have an idea of what they are discussing (even though their ideas may be totally opposite). Although they cannot precisely define the concepts they are talking about. In my opinion this leads to a bunch of jibber-jabber (dead-end conversation).

The scientist attaches an operational definition (a definition based on the set of operations that produced the thing defined) to concepts. An example of an operational definition follows: hunger a physiological need for food; the consequence of food deprivation. Once an operational definition has been established communication can move forward.


In everyday life numerous instruments are used to measure events. Common instruments include gas gauges, weight scales, and timers. These instruments are not very precise compared to the more exact instruments used with the scientific approach. When you look at your gas gauge while driving wouldn’t it be nice to know how many miles you can travel on ½ tank (or whatever the gas gauge registers). Your bathroom scale weighs you in pounds. What if you weigh 100lbs and 2 oz? What if your friend weighs 100 lbs and 6 oz? Your friend is heavier but the bathroom scale says you weigh the same. A common device used by coaches and athletes to measure sprint times are hand held timers. These timers are highly inaccurate and read to the tenths place. In the Olympics winners and losers are often separated by hundredths of a second. The instruments we generally depend on in everyday life give us approximations, not exact measurements.


An instrument can provide accuracy and preciseness but still lack value if the measurement is non-valid. When determining the validity of the measurement one must ask does the measurement really measure the concept in question? We discussed this aspect of measurement earlier when we spoke about operational definitions. In the fitness industry a common measurement of overall flexibility is the sit-and-reach test. This test is conducted while sitting with your legs extended straight in front of you. The next step is extending your arms as you reach towards the toes. This test is a poor indicator of overall flexibility. Flexibility is joint-specific, speed-specific, and plane of movement-specific. A battery of tests needs to be conducted to address each of these characteristics to validly measure flexibility.

Another important aspect of measurement is reliability. A measurement is reliable when it occurs consistently. In the context of science it is important for measurements to be reliable. The non-scientist gets by with less emphasis on reliability.

Validity and reliability are independent qualities. A measurement can be valid while not being reliable. A measurement can also be reliable and lack validity. In general, it is easier to show that a measurement is reliable than it is to show its validity. Both of these qualities are important to good measurement.


A hypothesis is a tentative explanation for a phenomenon. It often attempts to the answer the questions “How” and Why?” Almost everyone has formed their own hypotheses that explain some elements of human behavior. Why do people steal? What causes people to take drugs? Why do some people do better socially than others? The scientist proposes hypotheses that are testable. The non-scientist suggests hypotheses that are un-testable.

Hypotheses are not testable if the concepts they refer to are not accurately defined (i.e., conceptualization). To say someone uses drugs because they are “mentally weak” is not testable. There is no universal operational definition that defines mentally weak. To say someone uses drugs because they have a specific chemical imbalance or neurological disorder is usually testable.

Circular hypotheses are not testable. If you say someone takes drugs because they enjoy taking drugs you are using a circular hypothesis. Liking and enjoying something means the same thing. This hypothesis is non testable as it leads back to its own beginning.

A hypothesis is untestable if it is outside of the realm of science. To suggest someone steals because they are possessed by the devil is nonscientific. The devil is beyond the realm of scientific analysis because this concept cannot be scientifically studied, analyzed, or explained.


The key attribute of scientists is skepticism. Scientists question everything (almost everything). They want to see proof and more proof. They understand all knowledge is tentative. Many factors can interact and suggest causes for a specific event. It is important to recognize these factors and distinguish causative factors from correlation factors. It is also important to realize all humans are fallible. The scientist has the attitude that there are no absolute certainties. R.A Lyttleton suggests using the bead model of truth (Duncan R & Weston-Smith M 1977). This model depicts a bead on a horizontal wire that can move left or right. A 0 appears on the far left end and a 1 appears on the far right end. The 0 corresponds with total disbelief and the 1 corresponds with total belief (absolute certainty). Lyttleton suggests that the bead should never reach the far left or right end. The more that the evidence suggests the belief is true the closer the bead should be to 1. The more unlikely the belief is to be true the closer the bead should be to 0.

The non-scientist is ready to accept explanations that are based on insufficient evidence or sometimes no evidence. They heard it on CNN or their teacher said it so it must be true (logical fallacy of an Appeal to Authority). They reject notions because they can’t understand them or because they don’t respect the person making the claim. The scientist investigates the claim and critically evaluates the evidence.

Even though the scientist is skeptical, it is not practical to be skeptical all the time. Imagine that every time someone tells you something you ask for evidence to support his or her claim. You would have very few friends and you would get very little

Science or non-science

I prefer the scientific approach to knowledge. The approach is not perfect, but it is the best method we have. Science is subject to change, and this is one of its best qualities. The possibility always remains that future evidence will cause a scientific theory to be changed. Scientific theories are provisional.

In science the word theory is used differently than it is in everyday language (Johnson GB 2000). To a scientist, the word theory represents that of which he or she is most certain; in everyday language the word implies a guess (not sure). This often causes confusion for those unfamiliar with science. This confusion leads to the common statement “It’s only a theory.”

In conclusion, science cannot explain how and why everything happens. Science is limited to objective interpretations of observable occurrences. Most individuals incorporate some degree of science as well as non-science into their everyday lives. Science finds solutions to problems when solutions are possible. Some things that cannot be explained presently will be explained in the future. On the other hand we must recognize the fact we will probably never be able to explain everything.


Aragon A. (2007) Girth Control: The Science of Fat Loss and Muscle Gain. Alan Aragon Publishing.

Duncan R & Weston-Smith M. (1977) The Nature of Knowledge by RA Lyttleton. The Encyclopaedia of Ignorance. Pergamon Press.

Hale J. (2007) The Fitness Skeptic. [Online] 25 August 2008.

Johnson GB. (2000) The Living World. McGraw Hill.

Patten ML. (2004) Understanding Research Methods. Pyrczak Publishing.

Reber AS. (1985) The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology. Penguin Books.

Sagan C. (1996) The Demon Haunted World Science As a Candle in the Dark. Ballantine Books.

Shaughnessy JJ, Zechmeister EB. (1990) Research Methods in Psychology. McGraw Hill.

Shermer M. (1997) Why People Believe Weird Things. Owl Books.

Copyright 2008 Jamie Hale

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